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How we won the Duracks

Contributed by Graham Brown

Maybe not many people know the story of how Planet secured the Durack Ranges prospects.  This is what happened.

durack field operations

Durack Ranges operations.

Planet had a camp at Port Keats, a Catholic Mission on the west coast of the Northern Territory.  We were exploring the Victoria River area using helicopter, fixed wing and land transport (but that is another story).  We took a twin engine fixed wing aircraft and followed structures and leads south into Western Australia.  On the floor of the aircraft we had a “Yellowbox” scintillometer, and as we flew over the Durack Ranges at 150 knots and 150 feet above terrain, every time we flew over a certain ridge the scintillometer went off scale.  Very exciting stuff!

Obviously we had to get in and find out what was causing this significant anomaly, but it was two weeks before we could make the time available on the Sycamore helicopter.  This was an ex-British navy machine with wooden rotor blades and a 9-cylinder horizontally opposed Alvis Leonardies engine that weighed 1.5 tons. We established a base at Turkey Creek which is a tiny settlement located 3019km from Perth and 858km east of Broome on the Great Northern Highway.  In 1968 it was a PMG telephone relay station and practically nothing more.  Today there is a roadhouse there and it is one of the principal access points to the beautiful Purnululu National Park and the famous Bungle Bungle ranges.

We took the Sycamore to a radioactive hotspot that we had discovered from the air, about a one-hour flight from Turkey Creek.  There was a 30-foot cliff of conglomerate that sent the scintillometer into overdrive.  Even more exciting stuff!  Dr John Reed and I had recently been to Canada where we visited the Blind River uranium deposits that were being mined by Rio Tinto.  These occurred in a conglomerate that looked just like the Durack Ranges example!  We explored the area and were running out of time to get back to Turkey Creek before dark.  It was obvious that there had been a recent bushfire through the area, so the undergrowth was cleared which made access easy and visibility good.

On the way back to the helicopter we discovered a horrible sight.  There was a recent line of pegs in the ground with red and white square paper survey targets on the top, where they had not been burned by the fire.  We just could not afford to stay any longer, and as it was got back after sunset, which was very naughty.  The Sycamore had an exhaust pipe about six inches in diameter and there was a spectacular flame streaming from it behind us about 30 feet long.

On the way back to Turkey Creek we had the Yellowbox switched on, and it went ballistic when we passed over another outcrop about half way back.  We decided to visit it on the way to the  onglomerate the next morning.  Coming in to land, there was no breeze to lean the helicopter against (petrol engined choppers can not take off or land vertically) and the pilot was not very experienced.  He allowed the Sycamore to drift when we were about 130 feet up, and the tail rotor met up with a tall gum tree, upon which it disintegrated, being made of wood.  This caused the chopper to spin out of control and we then proceeded to reduce the rotor blades to mere stumps on other trees.  With the glide path of a well-shaped brick, we hit the ground with a mighty thump, but luckily stayed upright.  The Sycamore was badly damaged, but nobody was injured.  The battery burst but we managed to get out a “mayday” call that was picked up by the Department of Civil Aviation base in Wyndham.  It so happened that there was a helicopter there (a small Bell G3) which was sent down to rescue us.  At least we had an exact fix on our location.  It took some hours to get to us and could only take two passengers at a time, so needed two trips to Turkey Creek to get the four on board the Sycamore out (see newspaper report).  The most beautiful sound in the world at that time was the “chop-chop-chop” of the helicopter coming in over the trees to rescue us.

durack copper prospect

Durack Ranges operations.

But we still did not know what the survey pegs over “our” prospect meant, so we told the helicopter pilot that he was contracted for the next few days to get us there.  His response was that fortunately his machine was out of hours and as he was returning to Adelaide for a major overhaul he was unable to do anything for us.  I did not like this one bit, and so asked what alternative there was.  The pilot said there was none, unless the Minister for Civil Aviation gave a clearance as he was the only one who could authorise any variation to the hours for his machine.

Luckily we were at a PMG telephone relay station, and so got on the phone to Canberra.  The Minister was unavailable, and was on some island off the Queensland coast.  There was a telephone there, and eventually I managed to speak to the Minister, who was not pleased (as Ministers seem to be).  He asked how far it was to where we wanted to go, what was the hurry, etc etc.
As it was an hour there and an hour back from Turkey Creek, the Minister grudgingly authorised 2½ hours flying, giving us half an hour in the area. So in we went the next day.  It turned out that we had discovered this “hot spot” coming in from the north, and BHP had discovered the same thing coming from the south where they had a camp at Fitzroy Crossing.  They put in a fly camp at the hotspot, using the helicopter that had rescued us which was chartered by BHP.  They surveyed a base line (the survey posts we had seen) but the bushfire had chased them out and they could not get back because their helicopter was out of hours.   We went back in, in BHP’s helicopter, confirmed that there were no claim pegs, pegged the area using BHP’s base line, and then flew out again using BHP’s helicopter.  We got a survey party in there within days and finished pegging many claims, which eventually ended up in the Durack Mines Limited public issue in which Alan Bond was a partner.

So we used BHP’s survey line and BHP’s helicopter to beat BHP to the pegging of the potential uranium hotspot in the Durack Ranges.

Photographer: Bob Greenburg of Visual Media recording Durack Ranges operations.

See the WA Sunday Times Article below that describes our crash in detail:

sunday times Article

Sunday Times Article, Nov 3, 1968

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